Ralph Klein: Joker, smoker … trailblazer

MP Joan Crockatt explains why the plain-spoken premier of Alberta was anything but average

by Joan Crockatt

'Call him politically incorrect, it was more like politically astute,' writes MP Joan Crockatt. (Fred Chartrand, CP)

Ralph Klein, an icon of Canadian politics, died at noon on March 29 ending a political career of such brilliance that the glare astonishes us still.

The accolades and anecdotes piling after the maverick Alberta premier’s death showed a remarkable reverence for this exceptional leader who led from the middle. He slipped into retirement in 2006 and galloping dementia quickly snatched him away and the people’s politician was gone.

“RIP Ralph. You were pretty cool for a politician,” Ben Spaderman said on Twitter.

“I was a huge fan of the man – his love of country was unrivalled – his passion for his ‘people,’ unequalled,” said fellow Calgarian and former Dragon’s Den mogul Brett Wilson.

Pundits were uncharacteristically in agreement about this most irreverent of politicians.

“The public thought, ‘there goes me. There goes a guy like me,’” said Mount Royal University’s Duane Bratt.

“The magic of Klein … was personality politics all the way. He’d give a speech to a newcomer’s club, mention a few bums and creeps, and it would be a national story,” CTV’s Don Martin, Klein’s biographer, told the Alberta premier’s one-time employer, CTV Calgary.

Whether his years as a journalist honed his spider sense of what mattered to the people, or he gravitated to journalism because of it, is a matter of debate. What is indisputable is that Klein’s political instincts were blisteringly hot. He often said his secret was to find out where the parade was going and get out in front. “Except he always seemed to know the route before anyone else,” Martin added. His then-radical idea about balancing Alberta’s $2.3 billion deficit budget and his pledge to pay off the $23 billion debt when he ran for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta in 1992 changed Canada’s thinking.

In the thick of it, he installed an overhead sign on the highway into Edmonton that featured two words: “Think Differently.”

For the first half of Ralph Philip Klein’s life, if you’d told people around him that he would change the political trajectory of Canada from coast to coast, they’d have told you you’d had too many beers.

Ralph was all too familiar with having too many beers, but his influence spurred not only the revival of the Alberta economy after the post-National Energy Program doldrums, but showed the way for the great turnaround of 50 years of economic drought in Saskatchewan by Premier Brad Wall, and informed the budget-balancing quest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Economic Action Plan delivered last week.

Klein’s greatest accomplishment came in what he called slaying the deficit monster. He balanced Alberta’s books in three years – catapulting himself to soaring popularity. Soon all provinces and Ottawa were working to balance their budgets for the first time in decades. And no, he didn’t leave Alberta’s infrastructure lacking, as the revisionists would have you believe. In fact, the burgeoning growth and strength of the Alberta economy thanks to low taxes and balanced budgets caused such a job spurt that Canadians flocked to Alberta, and the newcomers needed dozens of new schools and hospitals. Such is the price of success. Others could do well to emulate it.

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Ralph chose his popular outdoor Stampede breakfast to announce that Alberta had paid off its $23 billion debt – in full. It was a victorious moment. We all knew we’d done our part. In Ralph’s pull-no-punches style — that didn’t include any fudging with “net debt,” “capital debt” or “non-book” borrowing against our savings.

He was a straight shooter. When his aim was off, he apologized. When he was on, he had a rare genius for putting every situation into a sound bite – making it a TV-worthy moment. His training as a former TV reporter enhanced his natural aversion to hiding what was blindingly obvious to the public. That made him truly beloved. He said what the average Albertan was thinking. Like the farmers who found mad-cow disease in their herds might have adopted the “shoot, shovel and shut up” mode of action. Like criminals who robbed banks and purse-snatched were “bums and creeps” who should go home. Like giving the middle-finger salute right back to an in-your-face protestor. When Klein went too far, folks readily forgave and even silently cheered.

He disarmed his critics and captivated the public. He looked right into their living rooms through the camera, Craig Ferguson style, without the eyebrow lift. He addressed them eye to eye and left them feeling like the good guys had a chance.

In three short years Klein rid Alberta of a $2.3 billion deficit and then proceeded to systematically decapitate its offspring, the debt monster. But not before narrowly escaping an early PC caucus revolt. Journalists vividly recall a dustup in the hallway outside the Alberta Legislature cafeteria one noon hour. The young head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a kid named Jason Kenney, encountered Klein on his way to grab some lunch. Kenney shot a barb at Klein, telling the premier he should cut the “gold-plated pensions” being readied for collection by the Lougheed and Getty-era politicians planning to retire before the election. Never one to back down from a scrap, Klein sparred with Kenney. A lot of finger-pointing and raised voices ensued. The press gallery spilled out of the tiny offices next to the cafeteria to catch the opening act in what was to become an entertaining diet of drama and surprise while Klein was premier. Ralph left red-faced and Kenney knew he’d hit the top of the evening newscasts. But that was just Round One.

After the next cabinet meeting, Ralph emerged with a bombshell.

“I’m cancelling the MLA pensions from here forward. All of them,” he told the media. “Nobody’s getting them. They’re wrong. Full stop.”

We were stunned. He’d listened. It was a gutsy move that cut the legs out from under the bombastic perk-collectors in cabinet who were counting on major cash haul. Later, Klein chose the election slogan “He listens, He cares.” As vacuous as it was, no one could dispute it.

Behind those cabinet doors Klein had faced an open revolt and a barrage of criticism from the “old boys” who demanded retirement windfalls. Klein told them this: ‘If you don’t want to be re-elected again, go ahead. I’m going to go out there right now to tell the media that I’m getting rid of the pensions. And I dare any of you to go out there after me and tell those reporters why you should get them.”

Not one did.

Klein turned a 20 per cent approval rating in the polls into a decisive election win.

He faced down judges, doctors and 2,500 raucous civil servants who rallied on the legislature steps, to decry him for asking every civil servant to take a 5 per cent wage cut. His chief of staff came down to the press gallery and said, “Ralph’s going out to talk to them in case any of you want to come.” The crowd was mad. They were loud. They tried to shout him down. Ralph stood there and took it, then he told them what they wanted wasn’t happening. “Don’t Blink,” was his motto. Everyone would play the same part in cutting the deficit.

What influenced this high-school dropout to spread a fire across the Prairies? Preston Manning’s Reform Party Blue Book – released four years before Klein was elected -, Alberta Liberal leader Laurence Decore’s digital debt clock that was recently emulated by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the University’s Calgary School. All of them set the scene for Klein’s fiscal conservatism. They rejected the Keynesian economics that had chained Canadians to bloated debts and deficits across Canada. But Klein himself proved fiscal conservativism’s best champion; he showed balancing a budget could be accomplished. He also stimulated an economic boom in Alberta that’s lasted to this day, freeing millions in interest payments for government programs, all the while winning the hearts and the respect, of voters.

University of Manitoba’s Wayne Simpson observed in a North American study, “Klein’s balanced budget legislation led to balanced budget legislation in seven Canadian provinces and 49 U.S. states. It concentrated on spending restraint, budget balancing and deficit reduction.”

He inherited the Progressive Conservative party in 1992 after a rudderless big spending era and capitalized on the flavor of the day in taking on the mantra of deficit slayer.

But when Ralph took on the task, he intended to complete it. How would he sell it? Finance Minister Jim Dinning would do the hard part inside government. Ralph would get the public on side by asking all Albertans to follow the call to action: “Don’t Blink.”

Few believed he would or could do it. That made it all the more remarkable. Klein was easy to underestimate. Easy-going, plainspoken, a regular-looking guy who stood not much more than 5 foot 7. Always a bit overweight, he chain smoked, loved to frequent late-night Chinese restaurants, and had an acknowledged drinking habit that he finally kicked after an embarrassing incident at a homeless shelter during an official visit.

His one regret was that he didn’t proceed with his announced “Third Way” for health care – amalgamating a range of public and private health care. He backed down and always regretted it.

In the grief following news of his death, you saw much of what was exceptional about Ralph Klein. He did what politicians of all stripes continually promise, but few deliver: he said what others were actually thinking.

Call him politically incorrect, it was more like politically astute. And his popularity showed it. Ralph’s guiding lights were an average but fictional couple – Martha and Henry from Rimby, Alberta, against whom he tested all ideas.

But Ralph, himself, was anything but average. Albertans understood they had something special even when the former CFCN-TV crime reporter plunked his name down on a ballot to run for mayor in 1980 after being disgusted with what he saw as ineptitude at Calgary City Hall. He was already notorious for capers like climbing up in the rafters over council chambers to eavesdrop on an in-camera meeting and after becoming mayor, pouring drinks at noon for  ’88 Olympics visitors to his Mayoralty office.

After boosting his plurality as Calgary mayor to 90 per cent, Albertans gave him four terms as Premier.

He was a guy who preferred a beer at the backwater St. Louis Hotel in Calgary to a dinner with high rollers. He celebrated his biggest election win at an Edmonton airport motel, and he often habituated Martini’s Bar with the press gallery – the place they often got their best scoops.

He was more than a dominant Canadian political figure. He was a trailblazer. Let us hope Canadians continue to follow him down that path.

Klein-isms:

“Don’t blink.”

“Think differently.”

“Slay the deficit dragon.”

“Eastern bums and creeps get the hell out of town.”

“That is a crock, to say the least.”

“They shouldn’t be telling us how to run our health care system – that is a provincial responsibility.”

“Abortion is between a woman, her doctor, and God.”

“People who come to rob banks, mug senior citizens and steal purses are not welcome.”

“Welcome to the miracle on the Prairies.”

“Welcome to the Alberta Advantage.”

“Welcome to Ralph’s World.”

We miss Ralph’s shoot-from-the-hip style, his disarming charm, his irreverence, and his crooked smile.

Most of all we miss him telling us what we all know: “you can’t spend money you don’t have.”

The contrary “is a crock, to say the least.”

Joan Crockatt was the Legislature Bureau Chief for the Edmonton Journal from 1991-1995 and is now the Member of Parliament for Calgary Centre.




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Ralph Klein: Joker, smoker … trailblazer

  1. Meh, Crockatt’s just another result of CPC corruption. A candidate they waived their 6 month limit for in order for her to run for the seat, and for whom they ended their member sign-ups early so as to prevent other candidates from being able to get voters into the meeting.

    This is the lady who explicitly said that her job as an MP is to support whatever the PM tells her to support.

    If anything’s a crock, it’s thinking that this lady has anything worthwhile to contribute to our country.

    • Aw, what’s the matter champ? You just sound bitter. Show a little class during an appropriate period of mourning.

      • Are we mourning for Crockatt now or something?

  2. Why was Ralph such a great politician? Because he wasn’t a lawyer.

  3. The same people who will mourn this guy Kim Jong Il style are the same who would spit on the grave on Trudeau. Or Jack Layton even, that’s politics in our time. I think all politicians should be absolved of the public spectacle and the public spared the spectacle.

  4. Here we go again – putting a man(Klein) on a pedestal – what’s next – a bronze statue? Funny, I didn’t know we gave the Order of Canada to wife-beaters and raging alcoholics, but considering the minimal standards given Black, etc…
    Why is it after someone passes away, we conveniently ignore the whole truth in favor of a trumped up sunshine and roses memory – losing truth and honesty in the process – and failing those to come with a message of “You can get away with almost anything, as long as you helped make a big profit.”
    As with us all, Klein had his faults…and yet managed to make a positive impact in a society that worships power and prosperity above all else. Yay.

    • Hey empty head…First theres been alot of us alcholics both practising and recovering that recieved the Order of Canada! Secondly you never met the man because if you had he would have told you to have a glass of shut the F….up! Your standards seem to be really high! Should I have read about you and your achievements? What great things have you contributed to our society? No….. membership in your local Black Bloc doesn’t count,and nope that grade 10 social studies report you did onWildebeasts doesnt quite make it! Whats that .. Im sorry bud that anarchy group cheerleader doesn’t either! Yup your right your a loser now go stand in the corner!

  5. barf.

  6. In my younger years I have sat with Ralph in the” backwaters” of Calgarys; St. Louis for a few brews! And I can tell you the article above is pretty much true,Ralph was salt of the earth,workin’ guys politican! Most of those quoted sayings came from “the backwaters of the St.louis” where us regular folk hung out!

  7. Ralph Klein represented what was great about Canada, prosperity, self reliance, freedom, rugged individualism, leadership, hope, and above all a man who could understand the needs and wants of the common citizens….he was and is a true leader among people every where on earth, those who hate him and revile him are just jealous of his many, many accomplishments.

    • That’s right, Canada, land of the free, home of the bra…heyyy.. wait a second…

      What was (and remains, though somewhat challenged these days) great about Canada: our empathy, co-operative nature, and devotion to peace. It’s not “peace, order, and good government” for nothing in our constitution.

      I’ll grant you that Ralph Klein would certainly have made a great American, however.

      • Since Ralph is no longer here to say it himself ( and he would have )—I`ll say it———Go screw yourself Thwim Twit.

  8. Nit-pick department: It’s Rimbey, with an ‘e’.

  9. Can’t tell if Crockatt actually agrees with the “Shoot, shovel and shut-up” mode of action or not.

    For that matter I never was sure if Klein thought so as well.

  10. Cliched but, we all make mistakes. Moreover, Ralph Klien deserves to be judged by the sum of his parts. His legacy was his ability to “paint a target that every Albertan could shoot at”. All Premiers in Canada would do well to copy the play “slay the deficit dragon” from Ralph’s “play book”.

  11. Crockatt: “In fact, the burgeoning growth and strength of the Alberta economy thanks to low taxes and balanced budgets caused such a job spurt that Canadians flocked to Alberta, and the newcomers needed dozens of new schools and hospitals. Such is the price of success. Others could do well to emulate it.”

    Others likely would, if others also had Alberta’s oil. Funny how that didn’t come up once, as though Alberta’s prosperity was solely due to the application of correct conservative policy.

  12. An ex-reporter who became a politician by grit and hard work, willing to apologize when he was wrong (or caught) memorialized by an ex-reporter handed an MP’s job with a muzzle attached.

    Yeah, I doubt Ralph would have wanted to have a beer with you, Joan.

    • What a bunch of non-sense.

  13. Like giving the middle-finger salute right back to an in-your-face protestor.

    I’m pretty sure Joan is referring to an exasperated environmental activist, who, I believe, ended up committing suicide some years later. I’m sure her journalistic skills of research will allow her to correct me if I am mistaken.

    • I think his name was Tooker Gomberg. From wiki:

      Gomberg was often controversial as an environmental activist, having been arrested numerous times.

      In June 2000, he was arrested at the World Petroleum Congress protests in Calgary. A protest march had taken him by the Suncor building, which was a violation of terms from an arrest at a Suncor protest in Northern Alberta. He was held for a couple of hours, then released. His was one of only three arrests at the WPC protests – the others being a street youth with outstanding warrants, and a woman who, when leaving the convergence centre was followed by police for several kilometers, stopped, and arrested for traffic violations.

      He locked himself in a safe in Alberta premier Ralph Klein’s constituency office as a protest against the Province’s stance on Kyoto…

  14. we could use more like ralph to get political correctness and govt out of our faces. well written article

  15. I miss Ralph too, but I refuse to let it cloud my judgement. We are still right to ask: Did Martha and Henry completely pay off their mortgage before buying school supplies, music lessons and sports equipment for their kids? Completely eliminating the debt was an ideological self-indulgence paid for with revenue from non-renewable resources. All it did was create an infrastructure deficit in place of the fiscal one, increasing our unhealthy dependence upon resource revenue in the process. We are still paying for Klein’s folly today.

  16. P.S. JOan “no infrastructure deficit as revisionists would have it” –What have you been smokin’ Joan?

  17. With all of Alberta’s oil/natural gas wealth, a monkey could have run the province….oh, wait…a monkey could not have imploded the Calgary General Hospital, shut down the Holy Cross Hospital and the Grace Hospital; that required “shoot from the lip” Ralph! It also required Ralph to cut infrastructure budgets resulting in millions of dollars in deferred maintenance of schools to the degree that we now have schools that are beyond salvaging. We also have highways unable to withstand the current transportation demands and hospitals that now use hallways as emergency rooms! In my 55 years of life in Alberta I find it hard to think of a Premier that was worse for this province than “Shoot, shovel and shut up” Ralph.

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